That was the year, that was: main trends in 2015

December 21, 2015 Tony Bates



Well, here we are at the end of another year. Doesn’t time fly! So here is my look back on 2015. I’ll do this in three separate posts. This one focuses on what I saw as the main trends in online learning in 2015.

Gradual disengagement

It was April, 2014, when I decided to stop (nearly) all professional activities, in order to complete my book, Teaching in a Digital Age, which came out in April this year. A year and eight months later, though, I haven’t stopped completely, as you will see. However, most of my activities this year were related to the publication or follow-up from the book. As a result I have reduced considerably my professional activities and this reduction will continue into 2016. Because I was less engaged this year with other institutions, I don’t have a good grip on all the things that happened during 2015 in the world of online learning. For a thorough review, see Audrey Watters excellent Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015.

Nevertheless I’m not dead yet, I have been doing some work with universities (see next post), and I have been following the literature and talking to colleagues, so here’s what I took away from 2015.

1. The move to hybrid learning

This is clearly the biggest and most significant development of 2015. More and more faculty are now almost routinely integrating online learning into their campus-based classes. The most common way this is being done (apart from using an LMS to support classroom teaching) still remains ‘flipped’ classrooms, where students watch a lecture online then come to class for discussion.

There are lots of problems with this approach, in particular the failure to make better pedagogical use of video and the failure of many students to view the lecture before coming to class, but for many faculty it is an obvious and important first step towards blended learning, and more importantly it has the potential for more active engagement from learners.

As instructors get more experience of this, though, they start looking at better ways to combine the video and classroom experiences. The big challenge then becomes how best to use the student time on campus, which is by no means always obvious. The predominant model of hybrid learning though is still the (recorded) lecture model, but adapted somewhat to allow for more discussion in large classes.

In most flipped classroom teaching, the initiative tends to come from the individual instructor, but some institutions, such as the University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa, are putting in campus-wide initiatives to redesign completely the large lecture class, involving teams of faculty, teaching assistants and instructional and web designers. I believe this to be the ‘true’ hybrid approach, because it looks from scratch at the affordances of online and face-to-face teaching and designs around those, rather than picking a particular design such as a flipped lecture. I anticipate that university or at least program-wide initiatives for the redesign of large first and second year classes will grow even more in 2016.

UBC's flexible learning initiative focuses on re-design to integrate online and classroom learing

UBC’s flexible learning initiative focuses on re-design to integrate online and classroom learing

2. Fully online undergraduate courses

Until fairly recently, the only institutions offering whole undergraduate programs fully online were either the for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix, or specialist open universities, such as the U.K Open University or Athabasca University in Canada.

Most for-credit online programs in conventional universities were at the graduate level, and even then, apart from online MBAs, fully online master programs were relatively rare. At an undergraduate level, online courses were mainly offered in third or more likely the fourth year, and more on an individual rather than a program basis, enabling regular, on-campus students to take extra courses or catch up so they could finish their bachelor degree within four years.

However, this year I noticed some quite distinguished Canadian universities building up to full undergraduate degrees available fully online. For instance, McMaster University is offering an online B.Tech (mainly software engineering) in partnership with Mohawk College. Students can take a diploma program from Mohawk then take the third and fourth year fully online from McMaster. Similarly Queens University, in partnership with the Northern College Haileybury School of Mines, is developing a fully online B.Tech in Mining Engineering. Queens is also developing a fully online ePre-Health Honours Bachelor of Science, using competency-based learning.

Fully online undergraduate programs will not be appropriate for all students, particularly those coming straight from high school. But the programs from Queens and McMaster recognise the growing market for people with two-year college diplomas, who are often already working and want to go on to a full undergraduate degree without giving up their jobs.

3. The automation of learning

Another trend I have noticed growing particularly strong in 2015, and one that I don’t like, is the tendency, particularly but not exclusively in the USA, to move to the automation of learning through behaviourist applications of computer technology. This can be seen in the use of computer-marked assignments in xMOOCs, the use of learning analytics to identify learners ‘at risk’, and adaptive learning that controls the way learners can work through materials. There are some elements of competency-based learning that also fit this paradigm.

This is a big topic which I will discuss in more detail in the new year in my discussion of the future of learning, but it definitely increased during 2015.

4. The growing importance of open source social media in online learning design

I noticed more and more instructors and instructional designers are incorporating social media into the design of online learning in 2015. In particular, more instructors are moving away from learning management systems and using open source social media such as blogs, wikis, and mobile apps, to provide flexibility and more learner engagement.

One important reason for this is to move away from commercially owned software and services, partly to protect student (and instructor) privacy. In a sense, this also a reaction to the automation and commercialization of learning, reflecting a difference in fundamental philosophy as well as in technology. Again, the increased use of social media in online learning is discussed in much more detail by Audrey Watters (see Social Media, Campus Activism and Free Speech).

5. More open educational materials – but not enough use

For me, the leader in OER in 2015 was the BCcampus open textbook project, and not just because I published my own book this way. This is proving to be a very successful program, already saving post-secondary students over $1 million from a total post-secondary student population of under 250,000. The only surprise is that many BC instructors are still resisting the move to open textbooks and that more jurisdictions outside Western Canada are not moving aggressively into open textbooks.

The general adoption of OER indeed still seems to be struggling. I noticed that some institutions in Ontario are beginning to develop OER that can be shared across different courses within the same institution (e.g. statistics). However, it would be much more useful if provincial or state articulation committees came together and agreed on the production of core OER that could be used throughout the same system within a particular discipline (and also, of course, made available to anyone outside). This way instructors would know the resources have been peer validated. Other ways to encourage faculty to use OER – in particular, ensuring the OER are of high quality both academically and in production terms – need to be researched and applied. It doesn’t make sense for online learning to be a cottage industry with every instructor doing everything themselves.

Is that it?

Yup. As I said, mine is a much narrower view of online learning trends than I have done in the past. You will note that I have not included MOOCs in my key trends for 2015. They are still there and still growing, but a lot of the hype has died down, and they are gradually easing into a more specialist niche or role in the wider higher education market. My strategy with MOOCs is if you can’t beat them, ignore them. They will eventually go away.


The next two posts will:

  1. provide a summary of my activities in 2015
  2. provide a statistical analysis of the most popular posts on my blog in 2015

In the new year I will write a more general post on the future of online learning. In the meantime, have a great holiday season and see you in 2016.

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